The Thin Line between Mental Health and Mental Hazard: Do You Need a Break?

By: Nicole Chedraoui

Calling all teenagers! Are you or someone you know part of the 20% of teens that struggle with a mental illness? Have you ever felt overwhelmed, stressed or anxious due to school, extracurriculars, or even current events plastered around the media? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re definitely not alone. 

Two states in the U.S recently took this information to court in hopes of enforcing change and being successful in relieving teen stressors in all their state school districts by providing a new concept to their schools–mental health days. The New York Times recently took it upon themselves to report and spread awareness on the trending phenomenon that are mental health days.  On July 1st, lawmakers in Oregon put in effect a new law that gives students up to five mental health days in a three month period. The bill was inspired by the politically active students of Parkland, Florida, in hopes of addressing mental health issues in all schools and ending the stigma of mental illness.  Shortly after the bill was approved, Utah followed in their footsteps, legally changing the validity of an excused absence to “mental or physical illness.” 

It’s safe to say the response to the two-state mental health laws change is, for the most part, overwhelmingly positive, for both the kids struggling with diagnosed mental illness, or those experiencing situational distress. Situational distress is anxiety derived from an individual’s current short-lived situation.  Former high school student Derek Evans, who recently graduated from high school in Oregon, made sure to voice his approval on the legislature’s new laws. Dealing with anxiety throughout high school has always left me tired, exhausted up against some weeks, and the difference one day makes is honestly life-changing,” he told Fox 12 Oregon. Of course you can’t please everyone, and shortly after the bill was passed, some parents began to express worries of their child just pretending to suffer from mental exhaustion to get out of class. Many parents even went as far to say that these laws are coddling their kids, as well as a few parents who still deny the existence of mental health and enforce the classic “suck it up” mentality.  Debbie Plotnick, Vice President of Mental Health and Systems Advocacy at Mental Health America was quick to speak on the invalidity of these statements saying in an interview “I don’t know that it coddles children when they have strep throat that keeps them at home when they have a fever[;] It is not coddling adults when they need a mental health day.”  

The opposition to the new laws was greatly outweighed by the vast amount of parents preaching how crucial these days off are for their teens’ well-being. Senior Manager for Youth and Young Adult Initiatives for the National Alliance on Mental Health, Jennifer Rothman, released a statement shortly after calling the passing of the laws,“a huge win, especially for individuals and families that are affected by mental health conditions.”  Rothman also reported to the New York Times that these off days not only give students a chance to express their needs while killing the stigma that surrounds mental health, but it benefits the kids who are quietly suffering the most. “We have a lot of kids dealing with this in silence because they’re embarrassed or they think people are going to judge them or not believe them,” Rothman says.  This is precisely why she and many other mental health professionals agree that federal mental health education should be available to all students, staff, and family members. The catalyst that set these new laws in motion was the fact that teen suicide rates in Utah increased by 46.5% and by 28.2% in Oregon between the years of 1999 and 2017, with increasing rates as time has prevailed. In an attempt to be more proactive in spreading awareness towards mental illness, both states agreed that the lack of education is a large factor of why many peers can’t recognize the warning signs and learn to help students help themselves.  Many current parents of highschool kids have come out and said that their kids’ mental health struggles are just a phase or “just them being a teenager,” which Rothman says is completely counterproductive- making the child feel as though their feelings are invalid or belittled. The school districts in the two states are trying everything they can to help reverse these feelings and spread awareness by not forcing students to go to school to only suffer from presenteeism.  

Presenteesim is a state where a student is physically present somewhere, but are mentally somewhere completely else, leaving them unresponsive to what is happening around them.  This is common in cases of severe mental illness and experts say that the most productive thing one can do to cure this is to take yourself out of this physical location and gather your thoughts.  Being in school physically is useless if you’re not there mentally. Students won’t be able to retain or understand the information being taught to them. It has been described as being totally isolated from their surroundings, and being in sensory-overload scenarios such as this only regresses the students mental state. Sensory overload is when they’re are too many triggers in an environment that impact your five senses and can send an anxious individual into panic.  When a student feels this severe sense of distraction, it means they’re burnt out and need to rest, recharge, or seek help from a professional. The last place these kids should be is sitting in a classroom.

Although there are so many real situations of kids in these conditions, you still run the risk of students who don’t suffer from mental illness abusing these laws.  The legislation, however, sided with the mental health specialist, agreeing that these new laws are a step in the right direction for our country, and that is exactly what Ms. Plotnick, educator of mental health in Utah, had to say on the topic. [“We think this will be a model for other countries to follow. As a matter of public policy, for decades we have waited until stage four, until crisis, and then treating it only through incarceration or having kids thrown out of school, we think that this kind of legislation will help people reach out when they need to, not be afraid to do so and not be ashamed.”]

At the end of the day, you’re nothing without your health– mental or physical– so this is a reminder to always take time for yourself and put yourself and your needs first.  Do not push yourself to the limits of presenteeism, and above all do not feel ashamed of the way you feel. Give yourself breaks and take a mental health day. 



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